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ben volin | on football

What the Patriots should have done in the offseason

Patriots coach Bill Belichick must figure out how to solve his team’s many problems.
EPA
Patriots coach Bill Belichick must figure out how to solve his team’s many problems.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Patriots president Jonathan Kraft was asked an interesting pregame question on the radio Monday night: “Why do the Patriots have so much salary cap space, and do they have the ability to sign someone during this season?’’

The Patriots, you see, were more than $14.1 million under the salary cap as of Tuesday morning, according to NFL Players Association records. That takes into account the $7.5 million the Patriots are carrying for Aaron Hernandez, and more than $8 million they’re spending on other players no longer with the team – Logan Mankins, Isaac Sopoaga, Steve Gregory, Adrian Wilson, Tommy Kelly, Ras-I Dowling, and Daniel Fells. Only seven other teams currently have more cap space than the Patriots.

Kraft responded that the current cap space “is a higher number than we would usually have at this time of year.” He explained the team has built a little more cushioning into its cap because the Patriots expect to be paying out incentives to players coming off injury that don’t count against the cap now, but will at the end of the year. Vince Wilfork has up to $3 million in incentives, Sebastian Vollmer up to $2 million, and Jerod Mayo up to $300,000.

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“What looks like a big number really isn’t,” Kraft said.

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All of that is true, although a lot of good things will have to happen — such as Mayo reaching the Pro Bowl or Wilfork playing 70 percent of snaps — for the Patriots to have to pay the full value of the incentives.

Still, Kraft was being a little disingenuous. The Patriots had the ability to make more moves in the offseason than they did. The salary cap is a myth. Teams always can find ways to get under it.

Back in January, shortly after the AFC Championship Game loss to Denver, I wrote a column outlining the Patriots’ road map for the offseason. And the Patriots actually did a lot of it.

Create cap space with Wilfork? Check. Re-sign Julian Edelman plus another veteran receiver? Check. Franchise Aqib Talib? Not quite, but we didn’t know Darrelle Revis would become available. Take offensive linemen in the draft? Check.

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Still, the Patriots didn’t nearly address all of their holes. And their offseason looks even worse now after what we’ve seen through the first four weeks of the season.

There were several other areas of the roster that needed improvement over the offseason, and they never came – either the Patriots felt like they could improve internally, or didn’t feel like spending on the free agency market, or didn’t scout free agents and draftees properly, or the chips didn’t quite fall their way during the draft. Three of their nine draft picks also didn’t make the team — picks that could have been better used.

Let’s take a look at some of the moves the Patriots should have made:

Offensive line. It was obvious that the Patriots knew it needed to improve here when they used three of their nine picks on the line — center Bryan Stork and tackle Cameron Fleming in the fourth round, and guard Jon Halapio in the sixth. Except as we are seeing now through four games, it wasn’t enough.

They could have used a higher draft pick on a guard or center, especially if they knew they would be trading Logan Mankins. More importantly, they probably should have signed a veteran in free agency, so that they wouldn’t be in a position like they were in Monday night, when they were forced to start two rookies on the interior, one of which (Fleming) never had played guard in his life. And Halapio, who was injured when he was drafted, wasn’t good enough to make the team.

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The Patriots didn’t have to break the bank for an interior lineman, but Geoff Schwartz (four years, $16.8 million), Jon Asamoah (five years, $22.5 million), and Zane Beadles (five years, $30 million) could’ve given the Patriots more veteran leadership in the middle of the line, at not too high a price (remember, those contracts are mostly funny money).

Pass rusher. This one really confounds me, because it was obvious to anyone who watched last year’s Patriots that Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich ran out of gas at the end of the season after playing more than 95 percent of snaps, and the team really needed more depth. Instead, all it did was draft Zach Moore in the sixth round out of Concordia State and add Dominique Easley, who is coming off an ACL injury and is really more of an interior pass rusher, anyway.

The Patriots could have used their first-round pick on a true defensive end, but those guys usually need a year or two to develop. But I really thought the Patriots would have made a bigger run at any number of veteran pass rushers who could have helped this team — Michael Johnson, Jared Allen, Julius Peppers, Justin Tuck, Willie Young, or Matt Shaughnessy. The Patriots have a good pass rusher in Jones, but he needs more help.

Tight end. This was another position the Patriots really should have addressed in the offseason given Rob Gronkowski’s injury history and the loss of Aaron Hernandez. They did trade for Tim Wright in the Mankins deal, but Brady won’t look his way, as Wright has just four catches for 35 yards.

The Patriots could have drafted Troy Niklas, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, or C.J. Fiedorowicz. And they could have had Brandon Myers, John Carlson, or Scott Chandler this offseason, who each signed for two years and about $4.5 million. Or make a big splash and go after Tony Gonzalez. Instead they have a wounded Gronk and not much else at the position.

Wide receiver. I figured the Patriots would sign a veteran receiver this offseason – Brady doesn’t have the patience to keep developing kids after last year. He wants finished products. So Brandon LaFell makes sense, and he actually showed some real nice flashes Monday night.

But did the Patriots sign the right one? They could have gone after Steve Smith, who is having a phenomenal year in Baltimore so far. They also could’ve gone after James Jones, Andre Roberts, or Emmanuel Sanders, whom they had in their grasp two offseasons ago and let walk away.

Running back. The Patriots don’t spend money on running backs, so they let LeGarrette Blount leave in free agency. But they don’t have a big, power back on the roster anymore after replacing Blount with fourth-round pick James White, who has only played in one game. Stevan Ridley is the only one who can break tackles, but the Patriots don’t feed him the ball enough. Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden can’t break any tackles, and Bolden, especially, isn’t giving the team a whole lot.

Blount was fantastic for the Patriots at the end of last year, then got a very reasonable two-year, $3.85 million contract from the Steelers. Why didn’t the Patriots re-sign him?

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin